It was a staggering demonstration of new technology, the fruit of heavy investment, months of behind-the-scenes work and the deployment of personnel seemingly everywhere at once. And the military was doing some interesting stuff too. But in television's coverage of the first days of the war, what transfixed American viewers was not simply what we were seeing but that we were seeing it at all. Tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles powering through berms on the Iraqi border, oil fields burning, missiles ripping into Baghdad and soldiers and reporters donning gas masks and scrambling for bunkers--all live and in color, or at least in night-vision green.
We have already seen more of Gulf War II than we did of all of Gulf War I. The best known TV scoop of the 1991 war was essentially radio: CNN's Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman describing the air attack on an audio line while the network broadcast their photographs over a map of Iraq. In sheer visual terms, last week's telecasts--with digital-age 3D animations, live interviews from the middle of an invasion and space-agey dispatches by videophone--were to their predecessor as Grand Theft Auto is to Pong.
For the networks, as for the military, this is a costly war--not just in equipment but potentially in hundreds of millions of dollars of forgone advertising. When it came to choosing between news and dollars, the networks went with their strength. NBC stuck with a Friends rerun on Thursday even after the ground war had begun, while CBS aired NCAA basketball. ABC and Fox, whose regular Thursday programming usually gets trounced, went with the war. Friends won. On cable, CNN--whose Gulf War I glory days are an increasingly misty memory--hoped its breaking-news reputation would help it unseat No. 1 Fox News. That didn't happen.
There were early stumbles. After President Bush's Monday ultimatum, MSNBC put up a deadline-countdown clock, as though it were the E! Oscars preshow. And when the first missiles hit, ABC's Peter Jennings was nowhere to be found, hustling onto the set shortly before Bush addressed the nation. As if to redeem itself, the network stayed with the story longer than its rivals. NBC got riveting reports from Baghdad from Arnett, on loan from MSNBC's National Geographic Explorer--he welcomed incoming fire like a bracing morning shower--but anchorman Tom Brokaw should save his sentimental streak for his WW II books.
All the networks sent stars into the gulf. That's great when the star is Ted Koppel, racing toward Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry and doing effortlessly intelligent long reports. It's not so terrific when the star is CBS's Julie Chen, who can't control an interview on the hermetically sealed set of Big Brother, much less in a war zone.